There’s a Sarah Silverman standup special called “Jesus is Magic.” I find Silverman hilarious, but that also sums up the way I experienced faith, growing up.
As a child, I prayed for, and about, everything:
- “Dear Jesus, I want a dog, please let me have a dog…”
- “Dear Jesus, I just have to have a Nintendo. Please, I need a Nintendo…”
- “Dear Jesus, when I open the bathroom door, please let it be a gateway to Narnia…”
- “Dear Jesus, please don’t let Dukakis become president…” (I told you how I was raised)
Some of it wasn’t quite so easy to parody:
- “Jesus, I am lonely. I am scared…”
- “Jesus, please help me make friends…”
- “Jesus, take away these headaches. I’m afraid they’re so bad I’ll die or go blind…”
In my greatest pain and fear, the nearness of Jesus gave me hope and comfort. It took a long time for my faith to evolve from seeing Jesus as both “imaginary friend” (I was a lonely homeschool kid) and “cosmic slot machine” (put in a quarter, pull the crank, and see what goodies come out). But these are developmentally appropriate manifestations of a child’s faith. The problem is when they last into adulthood…
In the interim, as an adolescent, Jesus was my bullied friend. I had to look out for him. I had internalized the persecution complex that seems to dominate the thinking of so many Evangelicals today. Despite remaining a dominant and largely-privileged cultural and economic force in America, complaints have continued for decades about oppression and persecution. This attitude brought out the very worst in me. My own internal “Golden Boy,” that part of me so desperate to do right and be affirmed, tried to fight battles on God’s behalf. I argued with my high school science teacher about evolution being a “theory.” I used grotesque imagery to debate abortion. I imagined Jesus, somehow still on the cross, wounded and offended by, well, just about everything.
At best, you may have found me… tiring.
Through seminary, membership in a progressive church, and most of all through life experience, I don’t think about Jesus as a magic wish-granter anymore, and I don’t think he needs my protection or my advocacy. In my thinking, God got bigger. The consequence of that for me is that God became less imminent. Less personally-knowable. And that view naturally creates some distance for me.
In John 14, Jesus says, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”
But I never actually saw Jesus of Nazareth, or walked with him. Like Philip, I am too easily waiting to be shown God, instead of looking for where we’re told to find God. That means letting go of the pop-cultural American caricature of Buddy Jesus, or the deeply-embedded Western archetype of Zeus.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
– Matthew 25:35-40
Hard not to Zeus-ify God with all this “king” language, but part of our work is to recognize context and move past it. Underneath is the clear message that God identifies with the poor and oppressed. Finding hope in that takes more than the magic faith of my childhood. Magic would end the suffering. Magic would blink away the evil and the injustice. I hope my son – as child – can believe in a God who is big enough for magic, and close enough to be a friend. But I hope as he grows up, his faith, too, will evolve. The exasperating God that maturity calls us to expects us to sit in the dirt, amid the suffering, and find salvation there when we cannot see it and cannot feel it.